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editor’s letter


What Do You Love?

At around age four or fi e, little ones begin exchanging Valentine’s Day cards with classmates. Along with this innocent rite of passage comes the implied expectation to make a public declaration of love to…someone. As adults, we see family, friends and co-workers await delivery of fl wers, balloons and artfully arranged baskets of fruit, on or around the 14th of February. And not being able to predict if the anxiously anticipated delivery will occur at all adds to our level of excitement or, disappointment. This m nth, we hope to absolve you of the pressure to publicly unburden your heart. Instead, come explore with us some Arkansas love stories. These olks have already pledged unto each other, so no need to fear a tale of unrequited love. Sage and Tom Holland are talented artists living “off the g id” in Fox, a quiet town nestled in northern Arkansas’ Boston Mountains. Th Hollands’ love of artisan beads led to a love of each other many years ago that continues to inspire their creativity today. Read more in Art Scene by AY contributor Audrey Coleman, pg. 32. Been to downtown Little Rock lately? A play at the Rep or the Robinson Center and back home doesn’t count. Have you driven or walked through downtown recently? If you haven’t you should. Lots of cool things happening. Shelby Styron’s feature, Small City, Big Ambitions, pg. 24 will let you in on the surprising ways technology is showing promise to raise the city’s profile a ound and outside of Arkansas. Heard of a used-to-be small city named Austin…as in Texas? Just asking. I had the pleasure of spending time with the lovely Carmen Partillo, owner of a new central Arkansas confectionery called Coca Belle. As Arkansas’ only certified hocolatier, not only does Carmen make fabulous

truffles and hocolate bark, she is a determined woman on track to make her presence known in the world of gourmet chocolates, pg. 44. And, AY contributor and relationship therapist Rebecca Ward differentiates between being alone and being lonely, pg. 58. It’s an important distinction to understand, especially during this partneroriented month. All of the love stuff too uch for you? Look Who’s Cookin’ pg. 50 features—hmmm—well it is love, but it’s love of the tradition of tradition. Little Rock’s Faded Rose owner Ed David, and General Manager and son Zac share thoughts on their love of family and traditional Creole cooking as they celebrate Mardi Gras. Do listen to their favorite songs on the AY Magazine Channel on Spotify. So, when you think of Oaklawn what comes to mind? AY art director Jamison Mosley’s photographic essay features employees who love their contribution to the fun time we enjoy at the track. Each one has more than 15 years invested in their careers. Take a look, pg. 36. AY contributor Autumn Jacob looks at the first Southern Living Idea Home 10 years later, pg. 16 in the Oak Ridge subdivision near Hot Springs. It was featured in AY Magazine 10 years ago. The hanges may surprise you. Lots to see and do around Arkansas this month so get out and experience as much as you can. Happy Mardi Gras and Happy Valentine’s Day! Enjoy!

Brigette Williams @ThisIsBrigette

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A Piece of

HAPPINESS For most, a piece of chocolate serves as a special treat when the craving strikes. For Carmen Portillo, a chance visit to a British sweet shop provided a safe haven and inspiration to become Arkansas' only certified chocolatier.



ƒ(This page) Carmen airbrushes molds with chocolate to prepare custom truffles.

t this time, Carmen Portillo, 32, can say she's a one-of-a-kind Arkansan, a claim few of us can make. She is the state's only certified hocolatier. Petit and beautiful, with an infectious laugh, she is a confessed chocoholic. But, Portillo's entree into the profession of confectioner surprisingly is inspired by a situation that is anything but sweet. Her journey begins, approaching 15 years ago, during college at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway. "I was a freshman and madly in love with a 'Brit' also attending UCA," she says smiling. Following her heart, she moved to England with him at the age of 19. When asked about family reaction to her relocation at such a young age she explains, "My family is interesting, in that my mother was from a military family, so they've always been open to world travel. His family had previously been here and met mine so there was familiarity." Soon after the move, it was apparent all was not as rosy as it had seemed on campus. "I was finding myself being 19 and thinking you're in love, growing up, trying to find yourself-things change. The elationship ended up being very toxic," she said. Portillo found herself in an abusive relationship, far away from family. Despondent, but resolved, she was committed to getting back home. "As in a lot of abusive relationships, my family knew nothing. I didn't want them to worry." But Portillo would have some respite to herself on day trips. "One day I stumbled upon this sweet shop in Wimbledon. It's funny when I think about the phase I was in and what I was going through at the time. That shop was so peaceful, and it brought about so much joy and excitement, watching the chocolatiers make the chocolate,� Portillo remembers. And me getting to pick out my box for the candy and having something special for me that I hadn't experienced at home; it was a piece of happiness in this world that I felt was falling apart." For Portillo, chocolate was more than a treat. "So, I think people's perception of 'Oh, I was always a chocoholic' and passionate about chocolate yeah, I like chocolate. But, the connection was so much deeper. It brought me peace and happiness at a time that was very, very dark." The toxic relationship now feels like an old dream, she says pensively. "Not a bad one. Just a dream," she said. "I want people in toxic situations to not lose sight of themselves because it's very easy to do. Not only was I alone, I'm small. I'm 5"5, and at the time 115 pounds. He was 6'8". I was not feeling mighty and powerful then. Chocolate was my peace from all of that. I knew I was going to get out of the situation the best way I could, finish school, save money from work and leave." AYMAG.COM . 45

For Portillo, chocolate was an escape. "While in England, I would visit Paris and it kind of became an obsession-finding chocolate shops, getting a box when I traveled, watching the actual technique of making chocolates. It sounds cliché', but it was always a sweet spot with me. When I thought about going to all of those little shops, it just brought me so much happiness." After a year in London, the relationship ended with Portillo returning home to family. "Swearing off love for the rest of her life," at the age of 20, fate had other plans. She would soon meet the man of her dreams through a blind date set up by friends. "Robert and I met at dinner at Cafe Prego and we've been inseparable since the night we met," she says giggling. He proposed six month later, with a 15-month engagement. Ten years later and now a family of three with two-year-old daughter Isabel, her face still blushes as she says the love is as wonderful now as it was in the beginning. Portillo soon began work at an accounting fi m with the realization this 'was not her thing.' Knowing she wanted to own her own business that would be fun and exciting, she began assessing her likes and interests. She said, “That chocolate, that feeling of happiness just kept coming back. So, I decided I wanted to be a chocolatier, but I didn't know how." Also a chocoholic, husband Robert was enthusiastic and supportive of her dream career change. Portillo's research to become a chocolatier in America uncovered the Notter School for Confectionary and Chocolate Arts in Orlando, founded by renowned Swiss chocolatier Edward Notter. With no credentials, she headed south. Laughing, she reflects on her journey. "I was in class with all of these prof essional pastry chef s and here I am from Little Rock, Arkansas on a mission to fulfi l a dream," she says laughing. "I felt completely out of my league, but I was like, you know what, I've got nothing to lose!" She committed to making it work, completing the chocolate emersion course. But, to become a chocolatier, there was additional course work to be done, which she completed at École Chocolat—Professional Chocolate Arts. The e are few chocolatiers in the United States. Portillo plans to become a master chocolatier, which will require further study in Europe. Eventually leaving accounting, Portillo started Cocoa Belle in 2008 with 200 square-feet of space in the River Market in downtown Little Rock. Timing was not the best as the economy was in a downward spiral. "By 2010 you could really feel the effect," stated Portillo. The poor economy and her husband Robert’s career change into nursing forced her to close the retail shop. She went back into accounting, maintaining her chocolate business by providing sweets for weddings and special events.

ƒ(From the top) Partillo tempers white chocolate for truffles that are made by hand. Tools of the trade for custom chocolates include pastry bag, airbrush for coating and molds for shaping. „(Opposite page) For Carmen, her journey to create Cocoa Belle is more than just making a product to sell. She would often ask herself, "'What is it that brings me a joy that I can't buy and can't stop thinking about?' It was chocolate." With a personal experience of how special chocolate can be, it's almost a mission to share that feeling of comfort with others.

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"So, I think people's perception of 'Oh, I was always a chocoholic' and passionate about chocolate yeah, I like chocolate. But, the connection was so much deeper. It brought me peace and happiness at a time that was very, very dark." - Carmen Portillo


"You know, it's funny how life's journey takes you through different places that you don't think are on track,” she said. “Why am I here? What is the intention of this? But, in that kinda wondering through and going back to accounting, I was able to work on other people's business and learn how processes should be set up. Understand, I started Cocoa Belle at 24. And, I didn't know enough about business." Fast forward. With Robert graduated from nursing school and the birth of daughter Isabel two months later in 2013, Portillo had decisions to make. Reflecting on lessons learned from her River Market retail shop experience, she decided to reopen, this time f ocused on wholesale and e-commerce. Cocoa Belle ships products across the country. Social media is a big driver of product. She enjoys talking to her customers, who provide great f eedback. Locally, Cocoa Belle chocolates are available at Catering to You, The Market at Capers, Green Corner Store and her storefront in Bryant. When asked to reflect she's honest. Portillo said she has changed her approach, adding that when she was 25 years old in 2008 she wanted to own her own business. “But I was looking at it from a technical point. I was exhausted; I was a one-woman band. Thistime, I know to be more aware of how to proceed. You want to look at every opportunity, but not necessarily take every one. If this is putting me back into a 'technician' place, I don't want it. This isn't just a job for me. It's more than that. I really want to build a legacy with Cocoa Belle," she said. Portillo remembers the thrill she felt when she visited the sweets shop in Wimbledon. "I want to be that excitement f or somebody. I want to recreate certain things I experienced there, like when I would buy those boxes of chocolate. It was my treasure that he didn't know about . . ."You're a jerk, but I'm happy here alone with my chocolates," she said laughing. "I want to tell the story of cocoa from the pod to the finished product, the whole story of chocolate." To accomplish this, Portillo will host chocolate and wine tastings, chocolate making nights and other activities for people to have a true experience at her Bryant location. "The e are times in the chocolate artisan world, when we can get a little too sophisticated in our ingredients-this has Himalayan salt and blueberries from a hidden jungle; whatever the most remote ingredient we can find on the other side of the Andes Mountains. Let's put it in chocolate and everybody's going to love it," she says laughing. "I'm from Little Rock, not Europe. I like that kind of exotic stuff, but I'm from the South. I'm a Southern girl and that's something to be proud of. So, my signature Southern Sweets line features high-quality ingre-

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dients using f la or prof iles of traditional desserts known south of the Mason Dixon line such as pecan pie, ambrosia, Mississippi mud pie. No one in the artisan chocolate world is doing that." During the time her shop was open in the River Market, Portillo noted her most popular truffl was key lime pie. "People loved it and appreciated the quality of the fla ors. But, why else did they love it? Because the key lime had a memory to it that makes it relatable. But, they also want great quality." Which brings Portillo back to her belief in her Signature Southern Sweets line. "So, I think most people don't have a memory of Himalayan salt. But, you do of Snickers or Kit Kat. I'm wanting to merge memories with taste and high quality in Arkansas." When asked about her journey so far, she is introspective. "I feel God is intentional in everything. Every situation, even though I have my own free will, it's all intentional. I would often ask, how can I make the best out of this situation in this hardship and being so f ar away f rom home…so alone, f eeling trapped, what is it you want me to get form this? I didn’t' realize it at the time, because I was in the middle of it. But, when I was removed from it, I came back to myself ; I got my sanity, and I was able to breathe and to reflect and p osper." At a point I thought, "I'm working at the accounting fi m, I'm a newlywed, I'm on a great path. What is it that brings me a joy that I can't buy and can't stop thinking about? It was chocolate. So, all of that turmoil and craziness still led me to something greater. Of course, that's definite y hard to see in that moment." Today, her dreams are good ones. "I am the dreamer," she says. "I'm more aware, conscious and cautious. I'm good, with Robert as my greatest cheerleader. He's always like ‘what do you need? Cause I've got you!' I can go to him and talk out problems." She laughs admitting they're both alpha personalities. "We're both leaders, so the one thing we can't do is work together." In March, Portillo will be one of 16 companies at a pitch competition sponsored by the Delta Regional Authority in New Orleans. Thisis an opportunity to present her chocolates to influential buyers and investors from across the country. "I'm really wanting to make Cocoa Belle a national brand, so if I can win the competition there is a $10,000 prize which is great." According to Portillo, there have been businesses that didn't win, but still secured impressive contracts. "Success is when opportunity meets preparation. So, I'm trying to prepare. And, if that's the opportunity, I want to be ready."

"I want to be that excitement for somebody. I want to recreate certain things I experienced there, like when I would buy those boxes of chocolate." - Carmen Portillo

 (This page) Carmen and her sweetest creation Isabel, 3, delve into a box of Cocoa Belle sweets. Isabel shares mom's and dad Robert's love of gourmet chocolates.


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February 2017 - AY Magazine  

The Oaklawn Steadfast, chocolate dreams, and loving downtown.

February 2017 - AY Magazine  

The Oaklawn Steadfast, chocolate dreams, and loving downtown.